By F. Brinley Bruton, Lawahez Jabari and Paul Goldman
JERUSALEM — Gil Sima doesn’t support Israel's occupation of the West Bank.
But that hasn't stopped filmmakers from dropping out of his Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival to protest the country's policies toward Palestinians.
“We are a very human-rights-oriented film festival. Here in Israel, they think we’re left-wing queer weirdos,” Sima, its executive director, said. “But outside, it's the same: ‘You’re from Israel, you’re right-wing, you’re an occupier.’”
Like many other entertainment and cultural events here, the film festival has been targeted by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign.
Founded in 2005, BDS calls for “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality." It also advocates for the return of millions of Palestinians to the homes their ancestors left or were forced from when Israel was established in 1948.
Israeli officials allege the BDS movement is anti-Semitic and seeks to destroy the country. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has spent at least $15 million on combating BDS since 2015.
“Did freedom destroy Alabama? Did it destroy South Africa?”
The campaign is reverberating in the United States, where the Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would allow states to punish businesses that take part in Israel boycotts.
But despite vigorous efforts to quash BDS, the pressure from those who support it is mounting.
Measures calling for boycotts of Israel, many of which are modeled on the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, including divesting from companies that sell to Israel’s army, are roiling college campuses.
During the summer, more than a dozen performers backed out of Israel's Meteor Festival after headliner Lana Del Rey canceled.
Scientists, academics and even fruit fans have backed BDS: Grape exports to Europe from the Jordan Valley in the West Bank have fallen by 80 percent since 2007 because of boycotts, according to the head of the regional council there.
The Airbnb decision prompted outbursts from Israeli officials and allies, with Israel's tourism minister calling the decision "hypocritical and disgusting," and threatening the company with legal action.
Senior Airbnb executives visited the West Bank and met with local Israeli officials and the company appeared to waver on its decision. And at the end of January, it was still possible to post new properties, and make and accept reservations on the site.
Michael Oren, an American-born former Israeli ambassador to Washington, was among those who called for a boycott of Airbnb in November. He criticized the company for not applying similar policies to Tibet or to Turkish-occupied Cyprus.
Oren, who also serves as a minister in Netanyahu's government, explained his reaction this way: BDS unfairly singles out Israel and is “designed to take us down.”
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He referred to the BDS battle as a new stage in an ongoing Palestinian effort to destroy Israel, but not through terrorism. Instead, he argues, the country’s enemies want to delegitimize the country.
Oren said that the right of return is "code for the destruction of the state of Israel, flooding us with 6 million Palestinians who claim they are refugees.”
He also rejected the notion that the issue revolves around free speech, describing the boycott as "a bigoted assault on an American ally."
Measures barring boycott supporters are another sign of how seriously Israel is taking the issue. In January 2018, the government released a list of 20 organizations whose members it bars from entering Israel because they support BDS. The list includes the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker organization) which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for rescuing victims of the Nazis, as well as the left-wing Jewish Voice for Peace.
Sima Vaknin-Gill, who serves as the director general in Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, and is among those charged with implementing anti-boycott laws, says the BDS campaign could be a “challenge, in the mid-and long term, regarding international public opinion and its perception of Israel about one very critical issue: Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.”
After Amnesty International on Jan. 30 released a scathing report calling on Airbnb and fellow online travel giants Booking.com, Expedia and TripAdvisor to stop listing in Jewish settlements, including eastern Jerusalem, the minister for strategic affairs Gilad Erdan announced that he had instructed officials to look into ways of barring the London-based human rights group from the country.
Erdan is a very public face in the battle against BDS and has already pushed for Omar Shakir — the Israel and Palestine director of Human Rights Watch — to be deported from the country, citing alleged support for the campaign.
In the U.S., at least 26 states have also passed laws targeting BDS.
Legislation similar to the bill that passed the Senate this week has been opposed by the ACLU and the liberal Jewish advocacy group J Street, as well as Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. It has been backed by major Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League.
Many of those who oppose the legislation do not back boycotts of Israel.
“While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to peacefully engage in political activity,” Sanders tweeted last month.
Regardless of the pressure on pro-BDS activists and others who criticize Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, one of the movement’s founders said he is optimistic.
The election of BDS supporters Rashida Tlaib and Ilham Omar to Congress, and support from senior senators, indicate that the movement has reached a “tipping point,” according to Omar Barghouti.
“Major Jewish politicians like Feinstein and Sanders, progressive politicians, are defending the right to BDS,” said Barghouti, a Columbia University-trained engineer.
“Israel throws a lot of dirt, hoping some of it will stick. But none of it is really sticking," he said. “Now Israel’s battle is with the ACLU, not with us."
He acknowledged that Israeli legal efforts to hobble the organization — for example by forcing the online donation site Donorbox to freeze its account in December — had jolted some supporters into action.
“People took it very seriously, and money started pouring in like never before,” Barghouti said. However, he also acknowledged that the case had an “enormous” chilling effect.
Barghouti rejected charges that BDS is anti-Semitic, pointing to its charter and the involvement of a number of Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace. Instead, he said, it is simply seeking justice for Palestinians in Israel, the occupied territories and beyond.
“Freedom, justice and equality, if that would destroy Israel, what does that say about Israel?” he said. “Did freedom destroy Alabama? Did it destroy South Africa?”
On Thursday, Amnesty called for Israel to ease travel restrictions on Barghouti, a resident of Israel.
The group said that a “de facto travel ban” was part of long-standing attacks by authorities, citing a March 2016 call for “targeted civil eliminations” of BDS leaders by Yisrael Katz, minister of transport, intelligence and atomic energy. At the same event, Erdan, the strategic affairs minister, said BDS activists and leaders had to “pay the price.” Erdan added later that he was not referring to “physical harm.”
Earlier this month, the Israeli government released a report claiming to show links between BDS and militant groups.
The report claimed current or former members of Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — both designated terrorist organizations by the U.S., European Union and Israel — are involved in BDS activity through Palestinian and international nongovernmental organizations.
Most links were based on accusations of affiliation or expressions of sympathy for militant groups, in some case linked to acts that took place years ago.
The BDS movement dismissed the findings as a “wild fabrication.”
Shurat HaDin, an organization that represents victims of terrorism, has been on the forefront of the battle against BDS.
The group filed a lawsuit on behalf of Israeli teenagers against New Zealand-based activists who it says persuaded the pop singer Lorde to reconsider performing in Tel Aviv. An Israeli court ordered the activists to pay more than $12,000 in damages.
It is also working with the government to deport Human Rights Watch's Shakir.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, Shurat HaDin’s founder, said Airbnb's move amounted to "discrimination" under a housing law that prohibits such acts based on race and religion.
However, she insisted that the "BDS movement doesn’t have financial effect” on the country, and instead she is combating BDS for the "minds of young people."
"Young people will become professionals and then decision-makers over the next few years," she said. "You don't want poisoned minds to take positions and to start acting against Israel."
Darshan-Leitner believes the battle against BDS is one part of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
"We are in a war with them," she said. "We have got to fight back. If they see BDS as a legitimate step they can take, they cannot expect Israel to sit idly by."
F. Brinley Bruton
F. Brinley Bruton is senior editor in charge of NBC News Digital’s London bureau.
Lawahez Jabari is a producer based in Tel Aviv. She has covered the Middle East conflict — on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides — for more than a decade.
Paul Goldman is a Tel Aviv-based producer and video editor for NBC News.